Every now and then it’s a great idea to blow everything up. To do something so dramatically different it changes forever the way others think about you, and the way you think about yourself.
This summer my wife and I spent five weeks walking an 1100-year old Catholic pilgrimage trail over rocky peaks, through thick rainy forests and dusty shadeless desserts, through industrial blight, and neighborhoods of both the super rich and desperately poor.
We walked the full length of the Camino de Santiago, a 490-mile path winding westward from a small corner of France through the length of northern Spain. The Camino takes you over five mountain ranges, through a few large cities, along with dozens of tiny hamlets and past vast fields of wheat, grapes, and grazing sheep. It ends at the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago in northwest Spain where the remains of St. James the Apostle are believed to be enshrined. It is a holy site for Catholics, worthy of a purifying pilgrimage of 500 miles just to prepare for the sight.
Not everyone who walks the Camino today is Catholic—including us. But as time went on it became a pilgrimage for us as well; a time to empty ourselves out and re-discover what lay underneath all the piles of cultural dust that so often clouds our vision.
We slept in hostels, and lived in very close quarters with a constantly shifting variety of fellow pilgrims, invariably younger, and who’s only similarities were their difference from us—the nice older American couple with floppy hats that started early each morning, but were easily passed within a few hours.
In the process we befriended folks from Australia, Canada, France, Sweden, Germany, England, Poland, Ireland, Ukraine, and China.
During the five weeks it took us to walk the Camino we never posted to Facebook. Somehow we, our friends, and civilization in general, survived.
I don’t know what I expected to learn from the Camino, but I ended up learning a lot. You get away for a weekend, or even a week, and it’s nice, but it doesn’t really change you. But five weeks is long enough for you to break through some walls, assuming you’re paying at least a little attention.
Here’s what I learned:
There is life without noise. Hours of silence as the world crawled by at three miles an hour reminded me that we don’t have to spend our time in the endless reactionary whiplash of modern media. Silence allows your brain to do its job and make sense of what your senses record each day. When we give ourselves time to reflect we’ll begin to act, instead of being endlessly acted upon.
Our obsession with differences is unhealthy, dangerous, and just plain stupid. Along the Camino we forged deep friendships with people of different religions, colors, cultural backgrounds and political beliefs. When this happens it’s like switching your view from black and white to color. The difference is profound.
And once we got past our differences we discovered a world of good people, all trying to do the right thing while looking for meaning in a disheartening world. Their religious faith, though usually different than ours, blesses them and motivates them to lives of kindly service. Such people are worth befriending, regardless of which church they attend or their political party.
Finally, my wife and I learned what we had previously only suspected—that we can do hard things. Despite our best efforts to get in shape before the Camino, we discovered immediately that our no-longer-young bodies were ill prepared for the rigors of daily 20-mile walks over mountains and deserts in all types of weather. We gutted it out at first, then we got stronger. And then stronger. Now we both know what we’re capable of, and it’s a lot.
But now we’re home, facing the struggle of not letting our hard won knowledge slip slowly away into the inertia of mediocrity that marks modern life. That’s the next hard thing on the horizon. But I’m pretty confident we won’t forget. After all, now we know we can do hard things.